Torah Talk – Bereshit: Beginning Again
It happens every year. People come to services for Rosh HaShana, and remember how meaningful Judaism can be in their lives. They fast and pray fervently on Yom Kippur, and come up to the Rabbi to talk about their great revelation: they are Jews and are going to start coming to services, classes, and programming. They come to the Succah multiple times, and dance with passion on Simchat Torah. But within a few weeks things start to come up in their lives and they miss a service or class, and then another, and within a couple of months the wholehearted commitment that they had made to themselves and God to renew their Jewish-ness has been put on the shelf…until the next year where the same pattern happens again. And so it goes from year to year: always the most honest passion and good intentions, followed by a waning of participation as they get more involved in their secular activities. It’s a good thing we all prayed Kol Nidrei, and the vows that we were to make were forgiven even before we made them!
But the first word of the Torah gives us a hint as to how to help ourselves and others keep those commitments.
Bereshit is usually translated as “In the Beginning”. But we are taught that if you play anagrams with the letters, you can create the phrase Shirat Av, meaning “Father’s Song”. The implication is that the Universe is created with the music of God. But it can be opened up even more. Av can be broken into the letters Aleph and Bet; the first two letters of Hebrew; creating the phrase Shirat Aleph Bet: “The song of the Aleph Bet”. It is in this understanding that I believe we can find a key to renewing Jewish practice and thought, and keeping the passion of the High Holidays throughout the year.
Each letter has a song. It is the values and teachings that it holds within Judaism; and we are taught in Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Creation, a Kabbalistic text attributed by Saadi Gaon in the 10th Century to Father Avraham) that the 22 Hebrew letters are the architectural plans of the Universe. Sefer Yetzirah goes into detailed explanation of the song of the letters and how they actually create existence on a metaphysical level. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s book, Sefer HaMiddot (The Book of Attributes); often referred to as “The Aleph Bet Book” demonstrates the concept of the power of letters more simply. The book is a series of aphorisms, organized alphabetically, about how to live as a Jew. Each letter becomes a guide in our self development, and a pathway back to Judaism. It is that pathway that is needed to keep ourselves aligned with the commitments we made on Yom Kippur.
Let’s be honest. The last few decades have seen a tremendous amount of conversions in America away from Judaism. Not conversions to another religion per se, but leaving the Jewish practices in favor of secularism. The devotion to religious practices has often replaced by a devotion to a political party; secular work; or anything else rather than our faith. But the Jewish soul yearns to live as a Jew, and is reminded of that fully as we experience the High Holidays (especially in prayers such as Ashamnu, where each letter is used as a reminder of what we have done). The soul aches to return home to its Jewish roots. This is the cause for that initial commitment to get back involved in Jewish practices and the Jewish community of temple life.
Zohar teaches us that each soul has its own letter of the Torah, which is expounded upon further in Megaleh Amukot (17th century text by R. Spira) which states “Every one of Israel has for his soul one letter of the 600,000 letters of Torah”. Each of us has a letter, each of us a song! We just need to find our letter; find our song; and that will keep the fire of our own Judaism alive.
We need to listen to music, and let it open up our spirituality. Yes, it would be nice if it’s “Jewish” music; but it must be music that feeds your soul. As your soul is fed musically; contemplate what you are really here to create. The same questions from Yom Kippur about why we are really here, what were created to do, what our purpose is must be constantly asked again and again. Like Bereshit, the first word of the Torah, which is repeated every year at Simchat Torah, we must constantly examine and re-examine the important questions in our lives…and none of those answers will come from the secular world; but rather from the path of our ancestors, the Judaism that we connected to during the holidays.
When we can each be aware of our own letter, our own place in existence and how it sings with the rest of the letters, the rest of the souls of the world: then we will truly have the sound of heaven here on earth.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
October 16th, 2020
28th of Tishrei, 5781